Mapping Classical Antiquity: Exploring the Ancient World through the maps created by ancient peoples

Possible Invasions and Migrations during the Bronze Age Collapse

The aim of this publication is to explore, through maps, texts and historical accounts of expeditions, what the people of what we can loosely call Classical Antiquity knew of the world and how their knowledge of the world’s geography evolved, changed and grew over time. Through this we will see how antique civilisations interpreted this knowledge and how this knowledge in turn influenced their world view. The series of articles following this one will trace the story of knowledge of the world from the dawning of the classical age in ancient Mesopotamia, through the Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans, to the end of the classical world where so much of that accumulated knowledge was lost and forgotten. However, before we can dive into the detail of the evidence, we need to set the context and parameters of our period of exploration.

Dating Classical Antiquity is a difficult business, the period roughly covers the millennium from the re-emergence of civilisation after the Bronze Age collapse to the collapse of antique civilisation itself about 1500 years ago. However, the exact definition of the boundaries of this period is open to dispute.

Some historians place the start of Classical Antiquity at end of the Greek Dark ages[1], using the date of the first Olympic Games[2] in 776 BCE as a starting point. Other historians use the founding of Rome in 753 BCE[3] as its start, and others still will pick out different events to place its beginning. The only consensus being of a start point in roughly the 8th Century BCE.

Romulus and Remus suckling a she-wolf

The end of the period is even more disputed, some historians use the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE[4] to mark the end of Classical Antiquity. Others place the end with the death of the Emperor Justinian in 565 CE[5] and yet more still with the coming of Islam in the 7th Century CE.

For the sake of clarity, for this series we are going to use the first Olympic games in 776 BCE as the start point for our period and the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE as the end of Classical Antiquity. This allows a broad scope but with definitive boundaries not tied to the lives of individuals but geopolitical events with a clear start and end point.

In between these epoch marking dates, the world would see the rise and fall of Assyria[6], Babylon[7] and Persia[8], the conquests of Alexander[9] and the domination of Rome[10].

Alexander the Great

Throughout the period, ideas, knowledge, and religions would shift and change, fundamentally altering the face of civilisation. However, there would be a consistent and continuous streak running throughout as knowledge of the world was passed down and developed, linking Babylon to Greece and Persia to Rome.

Through the maps these civilisations drew and the explorations of important characters, events, texts, and cultures we can track this development and see the impact it had throughout this thousand-year period and beyond. Each of the following articles will focus on a map, a character or an important event or account aimed at following the story of knowledge of the world and its geography through Classical Antiquity. However, to begin to understand Classical Antiquity, we must go back to its beginning.

From about 1200 BCE the world of the Bronze age entered a period that was violent, sudden and culturally disruptive, the great civilisations of the western world all but collapsed[11]. The empire of the Hittites vanished[12], the fractious Mycenaeans disappeared, taking their palace-based culture with them[13], Babylon was sacked[14], the Assyrians retreated[15], and a diminished Egypt[16] became isolated and wary of the outside world. Almost every city between Pylos and Gaza was violently destroyed and many were abandoned.

The Lion gate of Mycenae

What followed has been termed a dark age[17]. For several centuries, the world had to piece itself back together and adapt to the new realities that the Bronze age collapse brought with it. By the 8th Century BCE civilisation was on the rise once more, rediscovering and building on top of the half-forgotten knowledge of a glorious past, defining what they knew of the wider world and what they discovered in their own terms. Through the next thousand years this process would see civilisation grow to new heights and change beyond recognition, forging ideas and knowledge which still influence our own.

This publication is going to explore how Classical Antique civilisations understood their world, what they knew of far off lands and people, and what the way they depicted this knowledge can tell us about these societies. The first stop is ancient Mesopotamia, the heart of Classical Antiquity at the beginning of the period and the city of Babylon, a name which still resonates 2500 years later.

The ruins of Babylon

[1] Violatti, Cristian. “Greek Dark Age.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 30 Jan 2015. Web. 05 Jul 2020.

[2] Cartwright, Mark. “Ancient Olympic Games.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 13 Mar 2018. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[3] Mark, Joshua J. “Ancient Rome.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02 Sep 2009. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[4] Wasson, Donald L. “Fall of the Western Roman Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 12 Apr 2018. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[5] Wyeth, Will. “Justinian I.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Sep 2012. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[6] Crabben, Jan V. D. “History of Assyria.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 18 Jan 2012. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[7] Mark, Joshua J. “Babylon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Apr 2011. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[8] Davidson, Peter. “Achaemenid Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 11 Feb 2011. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[9] Mark, Joshua J. “Alexander the Great.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 14 Nov 2013. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[10] Mark, Joshua J. “Roman Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 22 Mar 2018. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[11] Podcasts, BBC. “The Bronze Age Collapse (In Our Time) — BBC.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 25 May 2019. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

Studies, Luwian. “The End of the Bronze Age.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 01 Jun 2016. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[12] Mark, Joshua J. “The Hittites.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 01 May 2018. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[13] Cartwright, Mark. “Mycenaean Civilization.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 24 May 2013. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[14] Mark, Joshua J. “Babylon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Apr 2011. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[15] Crabben, Jan V. D. “History of Assyria.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 18 Jan 2012. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[16] Mark, Joshua J. “New Kingdom of Egypt.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 07 Oct 2016. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[17] Violatti, Cristian. “Greek Dark Age.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 30 Jan 2015. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

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Lewis D'Ambra

Lewis D'Ambra

I write about history and its echoes and lessons for the present.